After a year in which revelations of corruption devastated the image of soccer governance in the Americas, Victor Montagliani was elected president of Concacaf in May 2016. The Canadian was tasked not only with restoring credibility to the North and Central American confederation, but also with maintaining the commercial and popular momentum that the sport has built up on the continent in recent decades.
In the year that has followed, Concacaf has collaborated with its equally embattled South American counterpart, Conmebol, on the pan-hemispheric Copa América Centenário, and watched the status of the sport resume its rise. Nevertheless, fundamental challenges remain in terms of practice and perception.
Speaking to SportsPro at the Football Talks conference in Lisbon - soon after suggesting on stage that the malfeasance uncovered in 2015 would have been enough to take down any other industry - Montagliani lays out those challenges and the priorities for the confederation and his presidency in the time ahead.
SP: We’re coming up to a year since your election. What have been some of the main challenges you’ve faced and how do you think you’ve fared?
VM: You know the biggest challenge really has been - not so much a challenge but we know where we were. We kind of know where we have to go, so it was making sure that the ship was steered that way, making sure culturally that some of the members understand some of the tough decisions that we have to make and sometimes why I have to say no. It’s for the long-term future of the confederation and we have to change our mindset as leaders within the confederation of Concacaf.
That’s been successful. The presidents understand what direction we’re going and quite frankly a lot of them have rejected the ways of the past and understand that football has changed and has changed for good. Quite frankly, the ones that perhaps are still trying to hang on should probably look in the mirror because football all over the world has changed and it has to change.
I don’t know if this is who you are referring to but one of the things that has happened in the past year is a cultural shift back towards North and Central American nations. There has been talk of a breakaway from the Caribbean nations to form their own confederation. What’s your response to that?
I think that was an isolated comment and voice, quite frankly. When it was made months ago, it was quite clear to me from the emails and texts and phone calls I got from the federation presidents that that was a notion that was not shared by the vast majority. I was elected on a vision of ‘One Concacaf’, based on 41 countries coming together and aggregating not only our assets but our philosophy and the way we move forward.
To be honest with you, as we've seen in Europe, it’s really the only way to grow a confederation. I think discussions of isolation and regionalism, which have led to a lack of transparency, lack of openness, and a lack of tolerance, really is the way of the past. I think my presidents have been quite clear on which direction they want to go.
One of the things that the events of 2015 did was bring down some pretty major partners of Concacaf, as well as officials within the organisations themselves. Do you now have to be vigilant about the people who are coming in - the agencies and the commercial partners - to fill some of those gaps?
Yeah. We control it at the Concacaf level because every agency or every partner that comes in has to sign an agreement as a vendor or a partner, so we go through those due diligences. We’re trying to push that down to our member associations to make sure that they follow the same path. A lot of them are starting to do that. We’ve done some workshops over the last year to make sure of that.
But you know nothing is foolproof and things always slip through the cracks. We’ll have to deal with it if that happens but I think we’re definitely, as a confederation as a whole, definitely starting to put those risk management tools in place.
Another facet of your time as leader has been this continued collaboration with Conmebol. It was announced a couple of weeks ago that the USA will host the 2020 Copa America. Does that mean that we’ll see another pan-continental or another tournament involving both confederations and both continents?
Where did you see that announcement?
There have reports, rather, that the USA was going to host 2020.
Ah. No, listen, we’ve been clear. I think the success of last year was massive for the Copa America Centenario. Our relationships with Conmebol are excellent, probably beyond excellent, and so we’ve had those discussions. We’re heading in that direction but there’s still a lot of things to cover off in terms of calendar and all those other things that go into that.
Nothing is foolproof and things always slip through the cracks. We’ll have to deal with it if that happens.
The suggestion was that this would move to 2020 so that it would be on the same timetable as the Euro.
If you look at the calendar, logistically that would be the only space you’d have. Logistically it does make sense but we continue to have those discussions and I think we’re both of the mind that it’s probably a good thing for football, first and foremost, and not a bad thing for each confederation as well.
Would you still be keen to have Concacaf properties running alongside that?
We’re committed to the Gold Cup to 2019 but beyond that we’ll have to revisit that.
The other big tournament that’s been discussed is of course the Fifa World Cup. You talked about it a bit on stage here - the 2026 concept for a three-nation World Cup of 48 teams. What’s the impact of what’s going on in American politics at the moment and the relationship between the US and Mexico at that level? What’s the impact going to be on those discussions going forward?
I hope the impact will be nothing but I think as leaders in football, we have a duty to navigate whatever the politics of that country is. The way I see it is this is not unique or isolated to the current US political situation. We have this - doesn’t matter when. Whether it was in Brazil and dealing with the government then, whether it was in South Africa, whether it’s in Russia coming up - you always have to deal with the governments, whatever the idiosyncrasies that that government may have, as it relates to whatever policies that they may have.
It’s up to us to put on the World Cup because we have a duty to the fans and I think the World Cup - no pun intended - needs to trump politics. Whatever we need to do to make sure that we navigate that, we’ll do it to make sure that we get a World Cup in Concacaf.
It’s been difficult for anyone to escape that pun but it’ll be a little harder to escape a physical border wall between two of the co-hosts. You’re not concerned that there would be any further degradation or any complications that would arise from that?
No. First of all, they have to build it still, right? Obviously those situations are not always the most comfortable but quite honestly people who are going to come and watch a World Cup, I’m not sure how much attention they’ll pay to any wall or whatever. Obviously, from a human standpoint, you’d rather not have that. But from a footballing standpoint, we need to make sure that when the World Cup is hosted, everybody is welcomed into the country.
Obviously there’s rules too. I don’t care if you’re Canada, the US or Mexico - we don’t just allow anybody in. Everybody has rules and not everybody can go into the UK as they want to or Germany or whatever. I mean, countries have rules and we just have to make sure that when it’s the World Cup that, for the ones that have the right to go in there, they get in there.
But those are issues that are a long way away as well, so with all due respect, if you could tell me what the world would look like in ten years, you’re a lot smarter than I am. That World Cup is ten years away and a lot of things can change, including presidents.
Looking over a shorter period, what are your priorities for the rest of your term?
My priority is to ensure the ‘One Concacaf’ vision on all fronts - governance, operations, fiscal - is implemented. We have scorecard that we share with our presidents on a quarterly basis. I laid out four pillars and I review them consistently with them to say: done, in progress, challenges, whatever. I take a very corporate approach to that with them so we’re keeping our own feet to the fire and we’re doing it in I think a very responsible way.
Montagliani was speaking to SportsPro's Eoin Connolly (@eoinfconnolly).